Game Preview: Celtics at Hawks

Make your picks now in Celtics 3-Point Play

BOSTON – It has been nearly two weeks since the Boston Celtics (23-21) took on an Eastern Conference opponent, but that streak will end tonight.

The Celtics are in Atlanta to take on the Hawks at 7:30 p.m. tonight in Philips Arena. This will be Boston’s first Eastern Conference opponent since it played Philadelphia on March 7, and it just so happens to be one that the C’s are chasing in the standings.

Atlanta and Boston are separated by just 2.5 games (two games in the loss column), meaning tonight’s game holds great significance. Finishing as the sixth seed, where the Hawks currently sit, or higher will likely help teams avoid the Bulls and Heat in the first round of the playoffs.

The Celtics are currently seventh in the conference but can make some headway with a victory tonight. In order to do so, they’ll need to play much better than they did during their stretch of games against the other conference.

Since March 7, the Celtics have gone on to have mixed results against six Western Conference opponents. The stretch began with a blowout victory over the Portland Trail Blazers, a game that doubled as Boston’s last home contest before taking off for this current eight-game road trip. Since that win, the C’s have been down and up, and down again.

Boston split two games in Los Angeles to start off the road trip and then knocked off the Warriors to take its record to 2-1 on the trip. The team has not experienced a win since that victory over Golden State on Wednesday, as they went on to lose consecutive games over the weekend in Sacramento and Denver.

Saturday’s loss to the Nuggets, which came in the second night of a back-to-back and in the high skies of Denver, may have been one of those games that Doc Rivers likes to call a “scheduled loss.” It was a tough task to handle against a run-and-gun opponent, but the C’s nearly overcame the odds and grabbed a win. However, Ray Allen missed a key 3-pointer in the final minute and Boston was handed another loss.

Thankfully for Boston the team now has a small break in the schedule where it can get some rest. It had Sunday off, will play tonight in Atlanta, and then will have Tuesday and Wednesday off, too. Sunday’s day of rest could go a long way in helping the Celtics grab a win against a Hawks team that has been as inconsistent as Boston this season.

Ever since Al Horford went down with a pectoral injury on Jan. 11, Atlanta has been hovering around the .500 mark. It has gone 19-15 without Horford in the lineup and only five of those wins have come against teams that are currently above the .500 mark. Obviously, the Hawks have struggled against quality opponents.

Atlanta has two All-Star caliber players in Joe Johnson and Josh Smith, and those two players have done their best to carry the load. They are averaging 18.8 PPG and 17.7 PPG respectively and are both contributing in all aspects of the game, but after those two the roster falls off dramatically.

Jeff Teague, a third-year player out of Wake Forest, is the only other Hawks player scoring in double-figures with his 12.3 PPG. Atlanta also has only three players who are averaging at least 4.0 RPG this season.

Unlike the last team that knocked off the Celtics, the Nuggets, Atlanta does not possess the type of depth that will cause pains for 48 minutes of basketball. That’s a good sign for a Boston team that is looking to get back on track and pull out an important victory on the road tonight.

Limit the Turnovers

One of the reasons why Boston has lost two consecutive games is that it has been sloppy with the basketball. The team averages just 15.2 turnovers a game this season but has committed an average of 17.7 turnovers over its last three contests.

Taking care of the ball starts with the point guard, and Rajon Rondo hasn’t been delivering in that department. Although he’s dished out an average of 14 assists over the past three contests, he has also committed an average of 4.0 turnovers in those games. Kevin Garnett and Paul Pierce have also contributed 3.3 and 2.7 turnovers per game during that stretch of games.

Opponents commit 15.4 turnovers per game against Atlanta, which is the 10th-highest number in the league. Boston’s ability to keep its turnover number below that average tonight will be critical.

Body Up Pachulia

Zaza Pachulia has always been a thorn in Boston’s side. He is one of the league’s hustle guys whose energy can change the game, much like Anderson Varejao of the Cavaliers. Their games aren’t pretty, but they get the job done.

Boston just faced a player like that on Saturday in Kenneth Faried, and they allowed him to change the game. Faried dropped in 18 points and 16 rebounds to lead Denver to victory.

Kevin Garnett, playing at center, will have the task of putting a body on Pachulia all night tonight. He will need to attack the glass with a vengeance and limit the amount of rebounds and points that Pachulia records via hustle plays.

Run the Offense Through Pierce

Hawks head coach Larry Drew recently made the decision to relegate Marvin Williams to a reserve role and that could play into Boston’s favor tonight. That is, if Williams, who is nursing a hip flexor injury, even plays. Should Williams play and Drew sticks with the plan tonight, Kirk Hinrich would start at shooting guard and Joe Johnson would wind up playing small forward.

Johnson has made his way in this league as a guard who can get it done at both ends of the court, but the key word in that statement is guard. He is not a forward and does not have a history of defending forwards like Pierce. Pierce should have an advantage over Johnson while those two are matched up.

For this reason, Boston would be smart to run the offense through Pierce tonight. As we all know, he can score in a variety of ways, and he should be able to show those talents off tonight against Johnson. Expect Pierce to fire up around 20 shots tonight.